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May 28, 2014

Back to the future: two cheers for deep doctrinal study

by Dan Rodriguez

Read over the long weekend a great biography on Judge Henry Friendly.  (David Dorsen, “Judge Henry Friendly,” Harvard Press).  Although not well known to the general public, Judge Friendly was an extraordinary well-regarded appellate judge on the 2nd circuit from the 1960’s through the mid-80’s.  His work in myriad fields of law helped synthesize and frame legal doctrine for the benefit of lawyers, judges (in the circuit and elsewhere), and legal scholars.

His skill was the ability to draw upon a wealth of deep and broad doctrine and, with good judgment and a pragmatic bent, to clarify and move the law, albeit incrementally.

With the interdisciplinary focus on legal study rightly at the forefront of our enterprise, it is worth recalling the value of careful doctrinal work.  While it is tempting to see Judge Friendly and his contemporaries as developing their skills as practicing lawyers and, later, as judges faced with real cases, it is important to see that their abilities were forged initially by their work in law schools.  Careful study of foundational subjects (torts, contracts, property, criminal law, procedure, and constitutional law) in the first year, and additional core subjects in the second year have enabled scores of young lawyers to forge successful practices with a deep knowledge base from the beginning of their careers.

We shouldn’t mythologize the nature and impact of doctrinal legal instruction, but neither should we take for granted that the great law schools are great in no small part for their skill in teaching future lawyers how to understand, manage, and explicate legal doctrine.  Emulating Judge Friendly’s peerless skills in this regard is a worthy aspiration!

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